One of the many problems that evangelicalism faces in America today is the disillusionment of a majority of evangelicals. Yes, we, or our parents, believed our local religious radio station playing Dr. Dobson in the 1980s, telling us that if we would listen to his show every day, go to church every Sunday, take our kids to youth group every Friday night, and buy those family devotionals for $21.95 (the family that prays together, stays together), that our children would be drug-free heterosexual virgins, faithfully serving God into the next millennium. They promised.
The fundamentalist sect I was born into had a different list: get baptized correctly, go to church three times a week, plus gospel meetings (called revivals in other cultures), no dancing, no swimming, no gambling, no drinking, no smoking, no mini-skirts. Then you could be guaranteed that your family would stay married, be happy and your kids would be faithful and marry within the sect.
The truth is, of course, very different, as we all found out. Evangelical ministers hit the ministry with idealistic high hopes, and start realizing the lies they have been fed very quickly. Within five years one third of ministers have quit the ministry, seventy-five percent of evangelical ministers are deep into career burn-out, believing they are in bad marriages, 25% considering having an affair, 69% use porn. (But we can buy a book about conquering porn, $18.95, on sale now if you call within the next 15 minutes, written by a conqueror and published by one of the pro-family ministries on the radio.
Or better yet, we could have the author come and speak, $2,250, and kick it off with a survey of the congregation that shows that 69% of the men are using porn right now. Add to that a book about how to put our marriages back together after an affair, $22.95, written by a forgiving spouse, and those bases are covered.) Yet these disillusioned pastors have to get up every Sunday and repeat the assurances to the hopeful flock: your marriages will survive the endless hours of TV and malls and be loving (and even sexy), your kids, despite the constant texting, will be peaceful, safe and responsible, like a re-run show from the 1960s.
The base not covered is the sinking feeling that rather than our faith being built on rock, as we sang in Sunday school, but built on polyethylene, sort of like an angel statuette bought at the local Christian book store in the 1980s (before the internet put book stores out of business). To call the local Christian book store a “book” store was to accept the ongoing evangelical practice of lying to ourselves. Yes, they displayed two shelves of the current bestsellers, but the rest of the store was devoted to lacy beribboned polystyrene kitsch that reassured the purchasers they were Christians, or advertised to the neighbors to stay away, because these people were hard core.
The evangelical church is on a never-ending treadmill of revamping and revising: Perhaps we should have spontaneous singing at the beginning of worship. What about adding djembe drums? The sound system is inadequate, and the projector has to be replaced. We’re showing a new video series complete with workbooks and small group leader guides. The pastoral committee is interviewing a new dynamic tattooed minister. The ministry on Thursday nights for the divorced is going well, but we’re having to ask the ex-gay ministry to meet in the library to make room for them. The parking lot was just repaved, and we’re one third of our way to meeting our financial goal to build a gym (Would you be willing to give sacrificially?). The biggest challenge facing our church? Keeping the nursery staffed with volunteers who have filled out the security check.
If I don’t expect fellowship or nutrition at a fast food enterprise that ships in frozen food from a warehouse and pays its workers minimum wage to smile at me, why would I expect fellowship or spiritual nutrition from a traditional evangelical church?
Fifty percent of believers do not attend church. We have voted with our feet. We could call this a lack of faith or commitment, but I prefer to call it a lack of church, broken promises, a thin understanding of God portrayed by our churches.
For some believers, this is an easy transition: church did not work, so they quit attending. They continue to pray and think about God daily. For others it is a difficult transition: they believed in the traditional church system whole-heartedly, they trusted evangelicalism deeply, they were horribly disappointed, and now they are angry at the liars who entrapped them.
Whenever I write a rant like this people ask me: Then where do you worship or fellowship? My answer is three-fold:
1. First of all, I haven’t finished ranting, so I don’t know where I’ll land.
2. I have a Shape Note club I attend on Tuesday nights that sings a cappella from the Sacred Harp, a hymnal, circa 1770-1870. The group is made up of ages 18 to 87, mostly atheist/agnostic, 30% Jewish, several Buddhists, 4% evangelical. We sing for two hours, then we go to a local pub and talk for another 90 minutes, at which we have had many spiritual conversations: Were the gospels all written or influenced by the apostle Paul? Did Jesus literally rise from the dead? Can Christianity be separated from its medieval political history? Why do fundamentalists collect guns? Why do conservative churches vote against helping the poor through Medicaid? How to forgive people who beep at me in traffic. How to stay married.
These are not conversations that the evangelical 4% in the group start. These are organic conversations without a hidden agenda. The Shape Note club has no leader, except someone who volunteers to relay email announcements, and someone else who brings the loaner song books. It has no organization, except for finding meeting space. When a member of the group has a death in the family, many members show up at the funeral.
3. I don’t need a designated group in order to be worshiping and fellowshipping. I am “at church” all the time. Tony Campolo said, “I don’t have to do sex, I am sex.” I say much the same thing: “I don’t have to do church, I am church.” Everywhere I go I am connecting and fellowshipping and encouraging, to a lesser or greater extent, successfully or unsuccessfully. No, the Shape Note club does not meet all of my worship and fellowship needs. It just meets more of them than any GMO traditional church I have been a member of.